MARTIN JOHNSON TRIBUTE - by Mike Selvey
He slipped away gently in his sleep on Saturday morning in a beautiful hospice with his family visiting in turns, which is the least he deserved after a year of excruciating, debilitating suffering from inoperable and, because of the delay in proper diagnosis, untreatable cancer of the jaw. His frequent trips (outings to him) to hospitals in Cheltenham, Gloucester and Worcester for tests or to have a stomach tube reinserted, say, earned him loyalty cards. Given his other underlying health issues which included a moderate stroke and emphysema (but not, he noted, obesity given that he hadn’t eaten solid food for a year, had been fed through a stomach tube for much of the time and was skeletal) he thought it a triumph he hadn’t completed his ailment bingo card with covid. By the end, he was, he said, pretty pissed off with it all. He had had enough.
He was Scoop to many, Jonno to me, and, occasionally, the Beast of Bendigo to those who were there at the time, a story to be told over the inevitable beers when circumstance allows. One of the many, many stories. Jonno was a journalist unique amongst sportswriters. There had always been humour in cricket writing but it was razor sharp wit or the slick bon-mots of Mike Carey or Matthew Engel. But then Jonno came in with a bladder on a stick and bells on his hat and changed the face of it, since when he has been much emulated with no one even coming close to achieving what he managed. I can think of no other sports writer who will be remembered not for the pieces they wrote but the one-liners contained therein to be repeated like those from Fawlty Towers or Tommy Cooper gags. We know them all: ‘can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field’ (peaked too early there, mate); ‘how anyone can turn a ball the width of Mike Gatting is beyond comprehension’; and so on, ad infinitum. Most would be happy for a couple like that in a career but Jonno could get two or three in a sentence.
This is not the place to trawl through his career. Not by me anyway. But a few weeks back, on one of the WhatsApp conversations we had, his only way of communicating, I made him an offer. “Jonno, Rex Alston once read his own obituary in the paper after premature reporting of his death. But I am going to give you the chance to write your own obit.” He wanted some time to think. But then a couple of days later he started, and it kept coming, as if he knew he really didn’t have long to do it. I’ve tidied it up but when you read, I’d like you to understand and appreciate the physical and mental effort that went into a desperately ill man, with all his handicaps, writing around 1100 words on WhatsApp over the course of two days. And in so doing revealing some of the steel, determination and sheer bloody mindedness that went alongside natural talent to make him the court jester supreme. He never liked being cut and it would be doing a disservice not to use what is his final work in full.
So Jonno, how did it start…..
I would have to say I have been ‘lucky’.
First of all I left the South Wales Argus, where I started, with no forwarding address a few days before the brother of a girl accused me of, let us say, conduct unbecoming. He, a very large rugby player had arrived in the office threating to duff me up I found out ten years later from the switchboard woman.
My good fortune continued with my interview with the editor and sports editor of the Leicester Mercury for sports writer/sub editor. I had several neatly prepared cuttings which unfortunately I had left on the kitchen table leaving home, and it got worse when I was forced to mention my Argus editor Ken Griffin.
"Ah dear old Ken” said my not-to-be-next editor about to phone for a reference, and off I went to the canteen for a cuppa with my old Argus colleague David Hands, later to become rugby correspondent of The Times.
"Did you get the job?"
"I did until about 5 minutes ago," I replied.
"How come?" he asked.
"They are talking to Griffin."
"Ah," he said, "bad luck."
The next interview question was a bit of a jaw dropper.
"Ken thought you’d left the Argus to go to a motor magazine."
Even as the proud owner of a Morris Minor (4 at that point and two in the driveway bringing it up to seven at the end) I was forced to end a long period of blathering with a truthful answer. "Well I can top up the oil and change a spark plug but that’s about it."
"Ken also said that your only problem with being a journalist would be a shyness problem you were receiving help for. But I have to say I’ve found you very outgoing."
I thought so hard I thought my head would fly off, but nothing came. Then bingo, I realised what he must have heard down a 70s phone line. There was a junior reporter in one of the district offices I worked in called Martyn Nutland. He drove an old vintage car that belonged to his father, read motor magazines for breakfast and was so shy he asked me how to chat up a girl reporter in the office.
I was still digesting this when I heard the editor say: "We will get down to sorting out the financial side now. So when can you start?"
Good that I realised what had happened as I never got on with Griffin and he would never have given me a nice reference.
My next break was in avoiding the fate of all new boys (subbing and the horse racing results) when the cricket correspondent resigned after his wife threatened him with the job or his marriage. Amazingly he chose his wife and I found myself catapulted from a life of phoning Market Harborough or Corby with the result of the 3.15 from Plumpton, to the dizzy heights of watching cricket with Leicestershire all over the country. Although I quickly learned that the pleasure of accepting a lift in the back of Ray Illingworth’s Jag was slightly spoiled when I got his petrol bill.
My next stroke of luck came when an away game at the Oval coincided with the Guardian’s former deputy sports editor, Charlie Burgess, attending his one cricket game for the summer and we got on well enough for him to look into my work and offer me the job of rugby correspondent at The Independent where he was the first sports editor. "Sorry, can’t offer you the cricket job," said Charlie, "but the job is promised elsewhere and it’s the one job I need a high profile name for."
"Couldn’t agree more,” I replied. “With all that profile I’d be petrified."
Anyway a few weeks later, in a county game at Northants, the sun was shining just enough to persuade me that the old county ground had never looked lovelier and Selve and I strolled over the outfield together heading for the Galloni ice-cream van.
"I hear you're about to become an Independent man. Congratulations," he said.
"Thanks," I said. “And well done to you on the Guardian job, eh?"
We chatted away and it became clear that with Selve having at first accepted the Indy cricket job, the Guardian cricket correspondent Matthew Engel was actually quitting to move to Washington for the paper and he had been given the cricket post. So he wasn't moving papers after all. Sometime later I was speaking to Charlie again and he asked me if I’d heard about Selve and would I be interested in switching from rugby.
I wasn’t interested in the switch.
"But cricket is your sport, not rugby," said Charlie.
"It is, but I'm not a name writer which the new launch needs."
"Look, how much were you earning at the Leicester Mercury?"
"And on the rugby job?"
"23,500 and a car."
"So what would you say to 25 and a posher car?"
"I'd say ‘done’."
My final lucky break was being naturally lazy, which included not wanting to write too much. On Test preview day we would all come back to the press box and you could hear the various phone conversations between offices:
"800? Worth 1000 at least."
Or from Martin-Jenkins: "1200? Surely 1500."
Alan Lee: "I think there has to be four pieces in this!"
"Johnno, 950 Ok?"
"Ok, 800 it is." Click..brrr.. "Selve, what's our tee off time again?"
And this was the case, rather than anything clever, when I typed nine words ahead of the Gabba Test of 1986-7. There had been another story to write that day, a TCCB announcement that all contracted players on tour had been banned from ghosted newspaper columns (Beefy again) but this time I won my battle to keep all the stories under one headline. So as I sat down to write the scathing test preview piece that everyone did - and none more vicious than Matthew - I had the idea of how to make England's shortcomings not only into black humour but also get the tabloid ban onto the mix quickly. ‘They can't bat, etc’ may never have been typed without the follow-up in the next paragraph: "they can't talk either - at least to their tabloid ghosts." The biggest factor as you know was the Aussies love of quote-backs and love of taking the piss out of the Poms.
Here he flagged. Please again imagine the effort that had gone into this.
"I’m gonna quit here," was his last message to me. "There’s not a lot left to say you'll be pleased to read. I’ll send tomorrow."
And then: "Hope to talk again before I croak (another feeble joke!)"
Although I messaged forty eight hours later, we never did speak again. He croaked the next morning. Your final piece and you missed your deadline, mate.
(note to subs: just put 'And the rest is history'. That should cover it. Ed)
March 16 2021